Functional Programming

Oct 29, 2018 · 12 min read

This is my learning journey

Functional programming is a programming paradigm — a style of building the structure and elements of computer programs — that treats computation as the evaluation of mathematical functions and avoids changing-state and mutable data — Wikipedia

Pure Functions

“water drop” by Mohan Murugesan on Unsplash

The first fundamental concept we learn when we want to understand Functional Programming is Pure functions. But what does that really mean? What does it make a function pure?

So how do we know if a function is pure or not? Here is a very strict definition of purity:

  • It returns the same result if given the same arguments (it is also referred as deterministic)
  • It does not cause any observable side effects

It returns the same result if given the same arguments

Imagine we want to implement a function that calculates the area of a circle. An impure function would receive radius as the parameter, and then calculates radius * radius * PI. In Clojure, the operator comes first, so radius * radius * PI becomes (* radius radius PI):

Why is this an impure function? Simply because it uses a global object that was not passed as a parameter to the function.

Now imagine some mathematicians discover that the PI value is actually 42.

Our impure function will now result in 10 * 10 * 42 = 4200. For the same parameter (radius = 10), we have a different result. Let's fix it!

TA-DA 🎉! Now we'll always pass PI value as a parameter to the function. So now we are just accessing parameters passed to the function. No external object.

  • For the parameters radius = 10 & PI = 3.14, we will always have the same the result: 314.0
  • For the parameters radius = 10 & PI = 42, we will always have the same the result: 4200

Reading Files

If our function reads external files, it's not a pure function, because the file’s contents can change.

Random number generation

Any function that relies on a random number generator cannot be pure.

It does not cause any observable side effects: modifying a global object or a parameter passed by reference

Now we want to implement a function to receive an integer value and return the value increased by 1.

We have the counter value. Our impure function receives that value and re-assign the counter with the value increased by 1.

Observation: mutability is discouraged in functional programming.

We are modifying the global object. But how would we make it pure? Just return the value increased by 1. Simple as that.

See that our pure function increase-counter returns 2, but the counter value is still the same. The function returns the incremented value without altering the value of the variable.

If we follow these two simple rules, it gets easier to understand our programs. Now every function is isolated and unable to impact other parts of our system.

Pure functions are stable, consistent, and predictable. Given the same parameters, pure functions will always return the same result. We don't need to think of the same parameter with different results because it will never happen.

Pure Functions Benefits

It's definitely easier to test. We don't need to mock anything. So we can unit test pure functions with different contexts:

  • Given a parameter A → expect the function to return value B
  • Given a parameter C → expect the function to return value D

A simple example would be a function to receive a collection of numbers and expect it to increment each element of this collection.

We receive the numbers collection and use map with inc function to increment each number, and return a new list of incremented numbers.

For the input [1 2 3 4 5], the expected output would be [2 3 4 5 6].


Unchanging over time or unable to be changed.

“Change neon light signage” by Ross Findon on Unsplash

When data is immutable, its state cannot change after it’s created. If you want to change an immutable object, you can’t. Instead, you create a new object with the new value.

In Javascript we commonly use the for loop. This next for statement has some mutable variables.

For each iteration, we are changing the i and the sumOfValue state. But how do we handle mutability in iteration? Recursion! Back to Clojure!

So here we have the sum function that receives a vector of numerical values. The recur jumps back into the loop until we get the vector empty (our recursion base case). For each "iteration" we will add the value to the total accumulator.

With recursion, we keep our "variables" immutable.

Obs: Yes! We can use reduce to implement this function. We will see this in the Higher Order Functions topic.

It is also very common to build up the final state of an object. Imagine we have a string, and we want to transform this string into a url slug.

In OOP in Ruby, we would create a class, let's say, UrlSlugify. And this class will have a slugify! method to transform the string input into a url slug.

Beautiful! It's implemented! Here we have an imperative programming saying exactly what we want to do in each slugify process: first lower case, then remove useless white spaces, and finally replace white space with hyphen.

But we are mutating the input state in this process.

We can handle this mutation by doing function composition, or function chaining. In other words, the result of a function will be used as an input for the next function, without modifying the original input string.

Here we have:

  • trim: removes whitespace from both ends of string
  • lower-case: converts string to all lower-case
  • replace: replaces all instance of match with replacement in a given string

We combine all 3 functions and we can "slugify" our string.

Speaking in combining functions, we can use the comp function to compose all the 3 functions. Let's take a look:

Another solution is to use the threading macro. Basically we can compose functions using the -> operator.

The -> operator takes the string, and pass it to the trim function. And then the result will be passed to the lower-case function. And finally, the result will be passed to the replace function.

Referential Transparency

“person holding eyeglasses” by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Let's implement a square function.

For this (pure) function, it will always have the same output, given the same input.

Passing 2 as a parameter of the square function, it will always returns 4. So now we can replace the (square 2) with 4. That's it! Our function is referentially transparent.

Basically, if a function consistently yields the same result for the same input, it is referentially transparent.

Pure Functions + Immutable Data = Referential Transparency

With this concept, a cool thing we can do is to memoize the function. Imagine we have this function:

The (+ 5 8) equals 13. This function will always result in 13. So we can do this:

An this expression will always result in 16. We can replace the entire expression with a numerical constant and memoize it.

Functions as First-class entities

“first-class” by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

The idea of functions as first-class entities is that functions are also treated as values and used as data.

In Clojure it's common to use defn to define functions, but, this is just syntactic sugar for (def foo (fn ...)). fn returns the function itself. defn returns a var which points to a function object.

Functions as first-class entities can:

  • Refer to it from constants and variables
  • Pass it as a parameter to other functions
  • Return it as result from other functions

The idea to treat functions as values and pass functions like data. This way we can combine functions with other functions to create new functions with new behavior.

Imagine we have a function that sum two values and then double the value. Something like this:

Now a function that subtracts values and the returns the double:

These functions have similar logic, but the difference is the operators functions. If we can treat functions as values and pass it as arguments, we can build a function that receives the operator function and use it inside our function. Let's build it!

Done! Now we have an f argument, and use it to process a and b. We passed the + and - functions to compose with the double-operator function and create a new behavior.

Higher Order Functions

When we talk about higher order functions, we mean a function that either:

  • Takes one or more functions as arguments
  • Or returns a function as its result

The double-operator function we implemented above is a higher order function, because it takes an operator function as an argument and use it.

Probably you've already heard about filter, map, and reduce. Let's take a look at it.


Given a collection, we want to filter by an attribute. The filter function expects a true or false value to determine if the element should or not be included in the result collection. Basically, if the callback expression is true, the filter function will include the element in the result collection. Otherwise, it will not.

A simple example is when we have a collection of integers and we want only the even numbers.

An imperative way to do it with Javascript is to…

  • Create an empty vector evenNumbers
  • Iterate over the numbers vector
  • Push the even number to the evenNumbers vector

But we can use the filter higher order function to receive the even? function, and returns a list of event numbers:

One interesting problem I solved on Hacker Rank FP Path was the Filter Array problem. The problem idea is to filter a given array of integers and output only those values that are less than a specified value X.

An imperative Javascript solution to this problem is something like that:

We say exactly what our function needs to do: iterate over the collection, compare the collection current item with x, and push this element to the resultArray if it pass the condition.

But we want a more declarative way to solve this problem, and using the filter higher order function as well.

A declarative Clojure solution would be something like this:

This syntax seems a bit strange in the first place, but #(> x %) is just a anonymous function that receives x and compare with each element in the collection (% represents the parameter of the anonymous function — in this case the current element inside the filter).

We can also do this with maps. Imagine we have a map of people with name and age. And we want to filter only people over age, meaning people who are more than 21 years old.

  • We have a list of people (with name and age).
  • We have the anonymous function #(< 21 (:age %)). Remember that the % represents the current element from the collection? Well, the element of the collection is a people map. If we do (:age {:name "TK" :age 26}), it returns the age value, 26 in this case.
  • We filter all people based on this anonymous function.


The idea of map is to transform a collection.

The map method transforms a collection by applying a function to all of its elements and building a new collection from the returned values.

Let's get the same people collection above. We don't want to filter the by over age now. We just want a list of strings, something like TK is 26 years old. So the final string might be :name is :age years old where :name and :age are attributes from each element from the people collection.

In a imperative Javascript way, it would be:

In a declarative Clojure way, it would be:

The whole idea is to transform a given collection into a new collection.

Another interesting Hacker Rank problem was the update list problem. We just want to update the values of a give collection with their absolute values.

For this input [1 2 3 -4 5], the output needs to be [1 2 3 4 5]. The absolute value of -4 is 4.

A simple solution would be an in-place update for each collection value.

We use the Math.abs function to transform the value into its absolute value, and do the in-place update.

This is not a functional way to implement this solution.

First, we learned about immutability. We know how immutability is important to make our functions more consistent and predictable. The idea is to build a new collection with all absolute values.

Second, why not use map here to "transform" all data?

My first idea was to build a to-absolute function to handle only one value.

If it is negative, we want to transform it in a positive value (the absolute value). Otherwise, we don't need to transform it.

Now that we know how to do absolute for one value, we can use this function to pass as an argument to the map function. Do you remember that a higher order function can receive a function as an argument and use it? Yes, map can do it!

Wow. So beautiful! 😍


The idea of reduce is to receive a function and a collection, and returns a value created by combining the items.

A common example people talk about is to get the total amount of an order. Imagine you were at, and add Product 1, Product 2, Product 3, and Product 4 to the shopping cart (order). Now we want to calculate the total amount of the shopping cart.

In imperative way, we would iterate the order list and sum each product amount to the total amount.

Using reduce, we can build a function to handle the amount sum and pass it as an argument to the reduce function.

Here we have shopping-cart, the function sum-amount that receives the current total-amount and the current-product object to sum them.

And the get-total-amount function reduce the shopping-cart by using the sum-amount and starting from 0.

Another way to get the total amount is to compose map and reduce. What do I mean by that? We can use map to transform the shopping-cart into a collection of amount values, and then just use the reduce function with + function.

The get-amount receives the product object and returns only the amount value. So what we have here is [10 30 20 60]. And then the reduce combine all items by adding up. Beautiful!

We took a look at how each higher order function works, but I want to show you an example of how we can compose all three functions in a simple example.

Talking about shopping cart, imagine we have this list of products in our order:

We want the total amount of all books in our shopping cart. Simple as that. The algorithm?

  • Filter by book type
  • Transform the shopping cart into a collection of amount using map
  • Combine all items by adding up with reduce

Done! 🎉

That's it!

Hey people, I hope you had fun reading this post, and I hope you learned a lot here! This was my attempt to share what I'm learning.

Here is the repository with all codes from this article.

Come learn with me, I'm sharing resources and my code in this Learning Functional Programming repository.

I hope you saw something useful for you here. And see you next time! :)

My Twitter & Github. ☺


The Renaissance Developer

Stories & Experiences from a Software Engineer

Thanks to Balint Erdos


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The Renaissance Developer

Stories & Experiences from a Software Engineer

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